Why the new NFL overtime rule is an improvement

Posted on March 26, 2010


Real NFL fans should like the new overtime rule — especially once it gets applied to the regular season — for the same reason that most of the real NFL coaches hate it. It holds out the promise of more high drama of the kind the NFL does best: where the coaching staff have to make a controversial strategic decision and the players have to execute.

Because of the sequential nature of NFL plays, with at least 40 seconds between most plays, the viewer can “participate” in the decision process (say, a decision to “go for it” on 4th down). With the help of the analysts in the broadcast booth, viewers can decide whether they like a strategic decision before the play actually happens. The new overtime rules could create one or two more of these moments, and at precisely the moment in a game where the outcome hangs in the balance.

Of course most current coaches are not thrilled about the new rules. They know full well that with both the old rule and the new rule, they have a 50-50 chance of winning their next overtime game. (This is why I argued in the last post that the new rule is no fairer than the old rule — because the old rule was not unfair.) But with the new rule, there is a higher chance that they will have to make a strategic decision that will be second-guessed — perhaps even by their boss.

And that is precisely why the modern football fan will love it. Second-guessing very specific decisions by coaches’ and players’ decisions is part of the engagement of modern fandom, especially in American football. It sustains several shows on ESPN throughout the week between the Sunday games.

So why will the new overtime rule open up more of these moments of “strategic tension”? If you’re reading this, you probably know the rule change already. In a nutshell, it is this: the team receiving the first kick-off in overtime can no longer win automatically when they kick a field goal on their first possession. (In recent years, this is how about 1/3 of overtimes have ended.) If they kick a field goal on their first possession, the other team will get one chance to receive a kick-off themselves and to kick a field goal (in which case the game enters a sudden-death phase where the next point wins), score a winning touchdown, or fail to do either and lose.

This will increase the chances of controversial decisions because approximately 1/3 of overtime games will be longer. The longer a game, the more decisions. But it will also introduce a number of potential options that coaches did not really have to consider before. Here are a few scenarios I picked up from various simulated debates on sports TV in the past week.

  • A team with first down in long-field-goal range on its first possession will have to decide whether to take risks to try to get a further first down in order to keep a game-clinching touchdown drive alive. This dilemma will repeat itself with each first down. Both the odds of kicking a successful field goal and the odds of scoring a touchdown may increase. But the rationale calculus will keep changing.
  • At the limit, a team in long-field-goal range may consider punting or even going for it on 4th down.
  • A team that kicks a field goal on their first possession may consider on on-side kick immediately afterward. According to the new rules, if they recover this kick, they win. (Having to defend against this possibility will hurt the run-back of the team trying to catch up.)
  • In a low-scoring game, in bad weather conditions, the team winning the coin toss (especially if it has a strong defense) may actually consider kicking off rather than receiving.
  • Even during the 4th quarter, some teams may fancy their odds in overtime and play more conservatively in order to bring about an overtime. (This would probably be fallacious reasoning, though. It is likely that many coaches and players on both team will think they have more than a 50% chance of winning in OT, and they can’t all be right.)

All of these decision points would be tantalizing for fans and pundits, and a coach doing something that we weren’t used to seeing under the old rule would be gambling with his career and reputation.

That, in short, is why I think the new rule would be an improvement. Basically: it gives any “true” fan more of what he or she enjoys most when watching the game (and not merely because it makes the game potentially longer). There is little downside, from the point of view of the fan: apart from increasing the risk of injury for key players. (For broadcast networks there would be headaches from dealing with more games running long; although for ESPN and the NFL Network, there would be more interest in “Monday-morning quarterbacking” for days after the game.)

The only remaining question is: why is that the relevant criterion for the justifiability of a rule change? That is, why is it ultimately about giving fans what they like about the game, rather than about, say, fairness to the teams? Let’s tackle this more philosophical question in a new post.